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Cheyenne Mountain Zoo CEO reflects on 30 year career at popular zoo

Posted at 10:27 PM, Jul 08, 2024

COLORADO SPRINGS — Bob Chastain has spent the last 3 decades of his career at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs. He's quick to tell you a story about each animal, most of them orphans, and how they got here.

"These came as orphaned animals," Chastain said when looking at one of the zoo's mountain lions.

Chastain's career at the zoo started in 1995.

Bob Chastain poses with giraffe in 1995
Bob Chastain poses with giraffe in 1995.

"My job originally was curator of horticulture, which means I took care of all of the plants inside and outside the exhibits," Chastain said.

Over the next 10 years, he climbed the ranks to the top. Chastain took on the role of chief executive officer in 2005, a goal he made for himself 5 years earlier.

"I started taking on exponentially more responsibility, including all the construction," he said. "The giraffe exhibit, which we're famous for, was the very first project big project that I managed. The children's area that's still working today, My Big Backyard, was the actual very first project that I was the project manager."

Bob Chastain poses with Penny the Giraffe
Bob Chastain poses with Penny the Giraffe.

Dianne Derby: It must give you great satisfaction when you see so much joy here.
Bob Chastain: One hundred percent. Yes.

But perhaps his greatest satisfaction is the story of the lives changed by visiting the zoo. That includes a military child named Grace with sensory, speech, and motor disorders who recently made a special trip back to the zoo from Kansas City.

"Their daughter at the time was around four and she had enough anxiety socially, that she really wasn't speaking," said Chastain. "She began to speak largely at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo."

Those life-changing moments happen for countless animals, too. The zoo's Quarters for Conservation program, created in part by Chastain, now puts 75 cents from each ticket purchased back into conservation efforts around the world.

"We're doing about a million dollars worth of conservation work in the field every 18 months," said Chastain. Read more about the zoo's conservation work here.

Chastain has seen much of that work in person. One of those projects includes a zoo partnership with the Tsavo trust in Kenya.

He says the zoo has sent nearly $750,000 to the Tsavo trust which helps to protect 10 of the last 30 super tusker elephants left on the planet.

Bob Chastain in plane in Kenya elephant anti-poacher monitoring
Bob Chastain in plane in Kenya elephant anti-poacher monitoring.

"In Africa, all the big ones were poached out," said Chastain. "There is an area in Tsavo, which is a park the size of Switzerland, and they do aerial surveillance of that, so that they can keep an eye on those animals."

In the meantime, Chastain knows he has a lot of work to do until he retires in 2026. Over the next two years, the zoo plans to spend $50 million in renovations to make what he calls the world's best home for the animals that live there.

"I walked up to the zoo on the weekend, one time, and I was telling my wife all the things that I wanted to do and she stopped in the middle of the road and said, 'I'm confused are you leaving or not,'" Chastain said. "I have endless amounts of ideas about how to make the zoo better. I'm still excited every day about about the work and I'm not leaving because I'm not excited about the work but because i just think it's time for a leadership change."

Chastain's leadership is defined by what he says is a "relentless pursuit of doing the right thing," a promise to himself that became even more challenging during the pandemic when he decided to keep all employees on staff during the three-month-long shutdown.

"What I didn't realize is how difficult it would be to know what the right thing was and that is difficult to this day," Chastain said. "Was the right thing to shut down because of COVID, was the right thing to stay open because of COVID, was the right thing not to lay employees off or to lay employees off? Every decision is 50 times harder I think when you're committed to doing the right thing because there's many factors that weigh into that."

Bob Chastain and staff with Penny the Giraffe
Bob Chastain and staff with Penny the Giraffe.

Dianne Derby: You have said you will most fondly look back on creating a culture that is "nothing short of magic."
Bob Chastain: That gives me chills thinking about it, because I think that it's the thing in life that I'm sort of most interested in is creating a microcosm of what I would think a great community is here. I see indications that we're on that right road. I don't think anybody arrives there, and then they get to coast, but I think that I can see that and enough employees are saying that, that it makes me just continue to be more and more motivated to try to pursue that."

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